Mann Center's classical opener is a 40th fete

Pianist Daniel Hsu performed at the Mann Tuesday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts opened for the summer a few weeks ago with its usual series of pop acts, but chose to note the arrival of middle age Tuesday night with this season’s first appearance of its resident ensemble, the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The open-air shed in Fairmount Park opened as the Robin Hood Dell West in 1976, 40 years ago, so tickets were priced from $19.76 to $40. A short video conveyed happy-40th wishes from dignitaries and regular folk, and fireworks followed a program whose repertoire echoed the one from the center’s very first opening night.
It seemed an apt, if not quite high-spirited, way to celebrate a nice round number, though you really could not watch the short film without feeling pangs for at least two things the Mann once had. If the center has vastly enhanced its amenities in the past few years — with more improvements on the way — the classical series has withered. Big-name soloists are rare now (Beverly Sills and Itzhak Perlman flashed by in the video scrapbook), and the orchestra is lacking a summer personification in the mold of Charles Dutoit, who walked off the Mann podium in 1999 and has not been replaced.
Tuesday’s performance was a reminder of the orchestra’s fragile presence at the Mann (one of the ensemble’s three regular summer homes, if the only local one). The audience wasn’t huge, just above 2,000, but it was vocal. Pianist Daniel Hsu, 18, a Curtis Institute of Music student, came with his own cheering section of Curtis trustees and donors in tow. He was, under any circumstances, worthy of great praise. The Mann’s sound system favored the orchestra too heavily in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, but Hsu’s personality came through.
How much individualism can you expect from an 18-year-old? He took a straight-time approach to the famously solo chords, building only in dynamics, and conductor Cristian Macelaru’s somewhat slowish first tempo did not auger well for the general energy level. But in stretches, and at transitional moments, Hsu exercised what we have heard from him in more intimate venues: he is a judicious dramatist careful not to overplay his emotional hand.
The Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3 that opened the concert offered no special contours. But Macelaru, the orchestra’s conductor-in-residence, was, to varying degrees, more of an interventionist in Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. This was the Ravel orchestration — rather than the rare Stokowski version the orchestra played earlier this year — and while there were surprising little individual and ensemble flubs in the “The Old Castle,” Macelaru shaped much of the music in a personal and quite convincing way.
The Mann concerts are generally short on rehearsal time, and this one, though not without its strong artistic statements, left open the question of what could have been achieved with more time.